A Watkinsville Republican state representative has filed a bill that would legalize sports betting without forcing Georgians to amend the state constitution.
State Rep. Marcus Wiedower, R-Watkinsville, filed House Bill 380, which would grant up to 16 licenses to companies running sports betting businesses. Wiedower was joined by a bipartisan group of 19 legislators as co-sponsors on the bill.
Monday’s introduction of the bill comes as a Senate panel is scheduled to hold a hearing Tuesday on similar legislation, but Senate Bill 57 would also legalize horse racing. That bill also doesn’t call for a constitutional amendment.
Gov. Brian Kemp has said he would work with legislative leaders this year on a measure to allow sports betting — something he previously opposed. When Lt. Gov. Burt Jones was a state senator, he sponsored legislation to make sports betting legal.
At a recent forum, House Speaker Jon Burns, R-Newington, indicated he was open to the idea of sports betting but he drew a firmer line on a broader expansion of gambling. ”I don’t think this year that we will see casinos move forward — or horse racing,” the speaker said.
Marshall Guest, a lobbyist with the Metro Atlanta Chamber, said passing the sports betting legislation would be a “huge win for education investment in the state.”
“We want to thank Rep. Wiedower for filing this bill and bringing our state one step closer to legal, safe and secure sports betting,” Guest said. “This legislation would legalize responsible sports betting in Georgia and generate additional revenue for education under the Georgia Lottery.”
Expanding gambling in Georgia has historically been difficult to do because it requires amending the state constitution — allowed only once two-thirds of each legislative chamber agrees to place it on a ballot and a majority of voters approve the change.
But lawmakers are emboldened by a recent memo from former Georgia Supreme Court Justice Harold D. Melton in which he said he did not believe a constitutional amendment is needed for the state to allow legal online sports betting and that it should be considered an extension of the state lottery.
Under the proposed legislation, the Georgia Lottery could issue up to 15 licenses for mobile sports betting as well as allowing bets to be placed on “coin operated amusement machines.” The bill is expected to be amended during the committee process to remove the allowance of sports betting on the machines.
Licenses could be awarded to professional sports teams in Georgia, Atlanta Motor Speedway, the Masters, the PGA Tour and up to seven private online betting companies. The lottery would also be able to hold a license itself.
Companies interested in operating sports betting in Georgia would have to pay a $100,000 application fee and an annual license fee of $1 million. License holders would pay a 15% income tax to the state on the company’s adjusted gross income.
Revenue raised from sports betting would continue to go to educational purposes and programs, such as the HOPE scholarship and pre-kindergarten classes, as it does from the lottery.
Supporters have said sports betting could bring anywhere from $30 million to $100 million in revenue to the state each year. Critics have said such numbers are exaggerated.
Jeanne Seaver, a former Republican lieutenant governor candidate who formed Moms Against Gambling, said state lawmakers should be more focused on the issues facing Georgians instead of pushing something that she said could lead gamblers to addiction or bankruptcy.
“It’s so disappointing,” she said. “For example, in Savannah we have a 24% poverty rate. And it’s not just in Georgia. Why aren’t we working on that?”
Analysts in the Capitol have been inconsistent on whether the state constitution allows sports betting. In 2019, Legislative Counsel Director Rick Ruskell recommended passing a constitutional amendment to legalize sports betting, citing ambiguity in the state constitution’s definitions.
In a 2020 legal opinion, Atlanta attorney Bruce Brown told an anti-gambling group that a sports betting law would not stand up to a constitutional challenge.
Legislators seemed primed last year to allow betting on professional sports, but the effort tanked amid a fight over where the potential revenue would go.
While Republicans hold a majority of the Legislature, they don’t control enough seats in each chamber to approve a constitutional amendment on their own. There’s also a divide in the GOP caucus, with some members refusing to support any form of gambling. That makes bipartisan support even more important — and Democrats have demanded needs-based scholarship funding be part of the equation.
Backers say Georgians illegally bet nearly $5 billion a year on sports. Georgians can pull up a sports betting website or app on their cellphone and place bets on games — most likely using overseas servers and skirting Georgia’s laws making the practice illegal.
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll of Georgia voters in January found that 49% of those asked said Georgia should legalize gambling on professional sports, while about 37% of respondents said they oppose allowing it. About 57% of those polled by the AJC in 2020 said they supported legalizing sports betting.
Casino advocates aren’t giving up. They’re pushing for a constitutional amendment to include sports betting, horse racing and casinos as a single package for approval, instead of stand-alone consideration of sports betting by itself.
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Credit: Ben Hendren for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution